Belmond Copacabana Palace, a nearly century-old luxury hotel facing Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) which has welcomed countless worldwide celebrities over the years, is now led by Algarvean hotel manager Ulisses Marreiros.
Inaugurated in 1923 and designed by French architect Joseph Gire, the Copacabana Palace is one of the world’s most famous luxury hotels.
Some of the world’s most influential celebrities and politicians have enjoyed stays at the hotel, from American actor and director Orson Welles (who made quite a scene during his stay by throwing a sofa out of his suite’s window into the pool) to Marlene Dietrich, Madonna, and even German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.
In 1991 alone, the hotel welcomed the likes of George Michael, Pelé, Nelson Mandela and Prince Charles and Princess Diana. More recently in 2009, British rock legends Rolling Stones stayed at the Copacabana Palace and performed live on a stage set up in front of it to an estimated crowd of 1.3 million.
It’s quite a history to live up to, but it’s a challenge that Ulisses Marreiros has embraced.
Speaking to Barlavento newspaper, he explained that he seized the opportunity to transfer to Brazil to manage the hotel after many years working for the Belmond group.
“I started at Quinta do Lago, which at the time was part of Orient Express which is now Belmond, and where I worked nearly nine years. The hotel was then sold, and I stayed some more time with the new administration. I ended up learning a lot,” he said.
After a five-year gap working abroad, he returned to the group to work in Madeira and then Mallorca. Now, he’s facing perhaps the biggest challenge of his career.
“I’m very happy. In the life of a hotel manager, it is interesting to be able to have new experiences and discover new places. Belmond operates in 23 countries; we have nearly 46 units including boats, hotels, restaurants, river cruises and trains. This hotel is an icon of the city and it is also an icon of luxury hotels. It is an honour to be here,” he said.
Marreiros’ last day working at La Residencia in Mallorca was December 24. Four days later, he landed in Rio to begin his new job.
“I arrived here, and it was truly a new experience because I came from Europe, where almost everything is closed including the hotel I was working at, and arrived in Rio de Janeiro with a full hotel, given that we cannot surpass the 60% occupation mark to allow social distancing,” he said.
“To get here and go from an empty hotel to a hotel with over 300 guests was truly an interesting experience. I was warmly welcomed by my colleagues, some of whom I already knew,” said Marreiros, adding that the fact that they speak the same language and that he knows some of the history of the city has also helped his transition.
What’s surprised him the most has been the Brazilian people’s “positivity” despite the global crisis caused by the pandemic.
“The level of contagion here is not lower than in Europe, but the reaction is slightly different. We have also been lucky, given that it is summer here, that the spread of the virus has not been as strong as it would be if it were winter,” he said.
“When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, I got into a taxi and the driver said, ‘there is a vaccine, we will all get out of this’. There is a Brazilian positivity that truly helps face this crisis,” Marreiros added.
While he just took charge of the hotel’s management around three months ago, the Algarvean hotel manager has also had a ‘taste’ of the balance that is needed between innovation and tradition in order to run such a storied hotel.
“For example, we have many returning clients at the hotel who do not want anything to change, but every year like to see something new. It is a contradiction, but it is what happens. So, we have to reinvent the experiences we offer our guests,” he said, explaining that while he is the manager, he answers to an executive committee based in London.
In January, around 33% of the hotel’s guests were foreigners – most of them from Europe trying to escape the “pressure of confinement”.
“These were people who came here to spend a week and ended up staying four because they have that economic power and can work from here. They would rather be here than stuck at home,” he said.
Since the start of February, however, most flights have been cancelled and Rio de Janeiro is now linked mostly to Miami, Paris and Amsterdam.
“In February, nearly 90% of our guests were Brazilian. They are clients who do not come here to visit the city. They come to rest,” he said.
While the future is uncertain, the Copacabana Palace has 45% of its expected bookings confirmed.
“This is very, very good, but we are also talking about very low expectations,” said Marreiros, who predicts a slow recovery for the hotel sector in 2021, which will hopefully pick up by October once a large part of people are vaccinated.
“We won’t return quickly to the numbers of 2019, but we will lead lives which will be a bit more normal,” he said.
Asked whether he plans to remain in Brazil for a certain period of time, Marreiros said: “We never have a set deadline.
“There were some hotel chains that had the idea that the general manager would leave every two years. But I think two years is a short period to create and strengthen contacts,” he said.
While he loves the “paradise destination” that is the Algarve and has received some offers to return, he said that he loves working for the Belmond group – which doesn’t manage any hotels in the region – so much that he normally does not even want to “hear them”.
An outstanding journey
Ulisses Marreiros has worked for over 25 years in the hotel industry, with his resumé featuring experiences as the general manager at Reid’s in Funchal (Madeira), head of marketing and sales at the five-star Vila Vita Parc Resort & Spa in Porches and a spell at Quinta do Lago.
The new general manager of Belmond Copacabana Palace obtained a degree in Hotel Management from the University of the Algarve and has also undergone courses at Harvard Business School and Cornell University in the US and Bocconi University in Milan, Italy.
“It’s a very tough sector. When everyone else has the day off, we in the hotel industry are working. This is a sector that professionals of all positions invest many hours in. There are some very hard jobs, but it is an enthralling sector,” said Marreiros.
Original interview written by Bruno Filipe Pires for Barlavento newspaper.